Saturday, August 23, 2014
3

The Cacophony of the World

PARIS – In his masterpiece Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger describes, probably too idyllically, the international balance-of-power system that, following the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815, produced what came to be called the “Concert of Europe.” As Kissinger describes it, after the Napoleonic Wars, “There was not only a physical equilibrium, but a moral one. Power and justice were in substantial harmony.” Of course, the concert ended in cacophony with the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914.

Today, after the brutality of the first half of the twentieth century, the temporary bipolarity of the Cold War, and America’s brief post-1989 hyperpower status, the world is once again searching for a new international order. Can something like the Concert of Europe be globalized?

Unfortunately, global cacophony seems more probable. One obvious reason is the absence of a recognized and accepted international referee. The United States, which best embodies ultimate power, is less willing – and less able – to exercise it. And the United Nations, which best embodies the principles of international order, is as divided and impotent as ever.

But, beyond the absence of a referee, another issue looms: the wave of globalization that followed the end of the Cold War has, paradoxically, accelerated fragmentation, affecting democratic and non-democratic countries alike. From the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia’s violent self-destruction, and Czechoslovakia’s peaceful divorce to today’s centrifugal pressures in Europe, the West, and the major emerging countries, fragmentation has been fundamental to international relations in recent decades.

The information revolution has created a more global, interdependent, and transparent world than ever. But this has led, in turn, to an anxious, balkanizing quest for identity. This effort to recover uniqueness is largely the cause of the international system’s growing fragmentation.

In the Concert of Europe, the number of actors was limited, and they were mostly states, whether national or imperial. Essential values were widely shared, and most actors favored protecting the existing order. In today’s world, by contrast, the nature of the actors involved is no longer so clear. Transnational forces, states, and non-state actors are all involved, and their goals are complex and sometimes contradictory, with no universal commitment to preserving the status quo.

The US may be intent on creating a transatlantic trade-and-investment pact with Europe, which would make a political statement to the world that the West writ large constitutes the universal normative reference point. But does such a West exist? In our era of fragmentation, there is a more powerful and dynamic American West, a globally more problematic European West (itself fragmented between a prosperous north and an economically lagging south), and even a British West and, in Japan, an Asian West.

The concept of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) may have been an astute branding tool. But, aside from its members’ high growth rates, has it had any real significance? Indeed, China is clearly in a category of its own, as a source of perceived (or real) risk to its regional environment. If the BRICs’ growth slows (as has begun to happen), the concept’s artificiality will become widely apparent. What unites emerging powers today is more their denial of international responsibilities than their joint diplomatic efforts.

Fragmentation also affects societies internally. Deep partisan divisions – whether over the role of government or social/cultural issues – are leading to near-paralysis in democratic societies like the US. In non-democratic societies, they can lead to revolution and violent power struggles. This has been the case in much of the Arab world since late 2010.

Even power itself is more fragmented than ever. Indeed, Moises Naim proclaims its demise in his latest book, The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used To Be. While Naim’s conclusion may be premature, he is right about one thing: “Power no longer buys as much as it did in the past.” It is “easier to get, harder to use – and easier to lose.”

Some analysts maintain, reassuringly, that rapprochement between Asia and the West is possible, given symbiosis between Western democracy and authoritarian Confucianism. This is Kishore Mahbubani’s argument in his book The Great Convergence. But the harmony stemming from the encounter between different cultures and systems is nowhere near – and will not be as long as the rule of law has not taken hold in the emerging world and a culture of modesty has not made headway within the plural West.

The cacophony of the world has replaced the concert of Europe. And this may very well be the case for the foreseeable future.

Hide Comments Hide Comments Read Comments (3)

Please login or register to post a comment

  1. CommentedNathan Coppedge

    The reliance on international actors and pseudo-agents has been shown already in works of science fiction. Politics seems to be struggling to antiquate its language the way it used to.

    Nonetheless, Obama seems to be a highly confident president, even if he is ostensibly speaking to the middle man.

    Details like the above point towards a new strategic approach in politics and international affairs. Maybe it doesn't seem new to those who are actually 'living it', but it is remarkable to study how 'new formalizations' are themselves cohorts to the 'occasions' of old businesses.

    Maybe it seems like dishwater to talk about the eloquence of politics. What I see is the emergence of long-dormant concepts like metaphor and free-tuition in defining the landscape of human affairs.

    When we refuse to accept the new influx of cache values, the scene gains an artificial conservatism, and comes off as less dynamic than it otherwise might be. What might once have been interpreted as the role of technology or consumerism is looking more and more intellectual---even on the public scene, there is an under-utilized utility of ideas themselves, things that might be realized which are trans-stratified and potentially structural, yet informational.

    There are news items like the following:

    1. Chess is no longer just win or lose
    2. Virtual information is partly image
    3. Money is both a strategy and a form of information
    4. Nearly anything must tap into individualism

  2. CommentedJuan Gabriel Gómez Albarello

    "Power and justice were in substantial harmony.” Your quote is eloquent. It speaks clearly about the neo-colonial framework you use to think about the world. I appreaciate your sincerity. Hope you'd appreciate ours, from the "South", now that we have become more vocal about many things we assert and many others we reject.

  3. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    The "Global Concert" is not a matter of choice but a necessity.
    Almost everybody accepts it as a fact that the world has become interconnected, and individuals and nations alike, regardless of size or influence, are fully dependent on each other.
    Politicians and economists are talking about "everybody sitting on the same boat", and we also know from the deepening crisis that this common boat is sinking.
    In such an interconnected and interdependent system no isolated, local, or regional solution can be successful.
    Although it is difficult to imagine how at present, but for such a system to function, let alone exist, any decision, action has to take into consideration the whole system before even moving a finger, and every movement has to be in the direction of maximum benefit for the whole, above individual or national benefit.
    This truly requires such harmony and mutual cooperation as a beautifully harmonious orchestra.
    But every orchestra needs a conductor (in our case a supra-national collection of people understanding the laws and principles of the global, integral system we live in, seeing the world in totality from system point of view), guiding the players towards that harmony, while each player needs to understand that it is irrelevant how skilful, or geniously talented they are, unless they play within the framework of the orchestra, by the beat of the conductor, instead of harmony cacophony starts.
    This is the crossroad humanity is at: are we choosing harmony, and a higher level of mutual existence, adapted to our evolutionary conditions, or cacophony and possible destruction of our civilization.

Featured